Thank you for clicking on this blog and reading. Are you feeling a little squirmy, maybe shifting in your seat? Do you have an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach? You are not alone — I feel that way too but in my heart I know this is an important conversation. I normally like to direct people to a Black voice in our community instead of inserting my opinion, but I wanted to write this blog specifically for parents raising children who are not people of color. I am the proud mother of two boys who will grow up to be White American men in the United State of America. It’s a great responsibility and a great opportunity.
Why talk to your children about race?
Your child is already aware of race. Children as young as 6 months see differences between people and already start to prefer people that look like their caregiver. On average, by the age of 4 children have already noticed that race has a hierarchical meaning. By the age of 7 and sometimes younger, those ideas have already solidified into prejudices. These prejudices can be changed but it is easier if they do not form in the first place. The saying “racism is taught” is true and your children are being taught, even if it is by your silence.
If you do not have conversations about race, you are not helping them to process their observations and it can transform into confusion and prejudice. By not talking about race, you are teaching your kids it is a topic that should not be talked about and is taboo. Your children will someday be involved in a conversation about race, and sadly, they may not be prepared or educated. People of color talk to their kids about race 75% more than White families.
We live in a world where racism exists. There are many reports, studies, and numbers that show the existence of racism. People of color experience more police violence, fatalities by police, loan rejections, underfunded schools, inadequate access to healthcare, and many more unfair circumstances. Your children live in this world and most likely have realized there are inequalities in our society. As a parent, it is your responsibility to help them understand what they are seeing. I also truly believe not being racist is not enough — we have to teach children to be antiracist.
Talking about race is uncomfortable — what if I do it wrong?
Certain topics feel uncomfortable to talk about in general, and especially with children. Race is one of the topics people like to avoid. I suggest leaning into the discomfort and doing it anyway because it is important. If you are uncomfortable and keep silent, your children will pick up on it and feel there is something wrong with talking about race. Breathe through the discomfort and continue.
My children have asked me uncomfortable questions like, “If we are white, why do we have to fight for Black people’s rights?” These questions are uncomfortable but they are exactly why we have these conversations. We do not want children to process these complex feelings on their own.
I fully support parents educating themselves on our history and current systemic racism, which is not something that was taught to us in school. We are lucky to have many resources available to educate ourselves. You do not have to wait until you feel you know everything to talk to your children. You can use this as an opportunity to learn together. Also keep in mind children’s comments are age-appropriate and that actually gives you a wonderful starting point.
Our family believes in equality; we see no color, we are not part of the problem
I like to think of myself as a big ball of love that spreads happiness and peace into the universe everyday. That is lovely and I will keep doing that, but it is not helping systemic racism. In terms of brain development, it is neurologically impossible to “not see color.” Many of today’s parents grew up in the “color blind” and “we are all equal” era. I am an optimistic realist. As much as I would love it if we were all equal, it is absolutely not a reality.
There is decades of data that show people of color are consistently disadvantaged and discriminated against. We live in a world of systemic racism, and ignoring this is not helping. If we are teaching children that we are all treated equally, that is not the truth — it’s a blatant lie. Everyone should be treated equally, but that is not what is happening. Believing that everyone is being treated equally is not actually helping us to evolve to the point where we are all equal.
If you would like everyone to be treated equally, you have to first accept and be aware that we are not all being treated equally. How can we as a society be the best we can be if our brothers and sisters do not have the same opportunities we as White people do?
Not my story to tell
If you are not a person of color, you may feel it is not your place to share because you have not experienced adversity in the same way. If you are not a person of color you can of course still be adversely affected by society, have a hard life, and be discriminated against. However, keep in mind it is possible (and even likely) that you have inadvertently benefited from being White. It is still important that you engage in these conversations and there are many resources that can help you do this.
If you are a human being living in this world, this is an important conversation to have, even if it is not your story and experience. There are hundreds of resources created that you can use to help tell this story and open up a conversation.
Now that you are ready to talk to your kids about racism and hopefully help them be antiracist, HOW do you talk to your children about race?
First and foremost, model behavior. Remember, you can talk about race, but your children are always watching you. The first and most important thing is to model the behavior you would like to see in your children. If you would like to have an antiracist child, I suggest modeling antiracist behavior.
To talk about it, take a deep breath and lean in. Also remember that kids are awesome. They generally believe in fairness and justice. If you start the conversation, you might realize they have been waiting to talk about this and have great ideas. When I talk about race I like to take a moment to breathe, connect, and imagine the best possible outcome from our interaction. I hold space for hope.
To talk to young children, keep in mind they love to sort and find similarities and differences. If you come upon a question, take a deep breath and answer calmly. Imagine your child is at the park and says, “Why is that boy’s skin darker than mine?” If you ignore this, what message are you sending your child? If you fidget, feel uncomfortable, and say, “Don’t say that” and move on, what message are you conveying? If the person they are talking about is in front of you or in earshot, you can make eye contact with the person, and start the conversation by reminding your child it is not polite to point or single someone out, but then you can continue.
If you calmly say, “Yeah, look at that. He does have beautiful brown skin and you have beautiful light tan skin.” You could even take it a step further and say, “Darker skin has more melanin. It is something in our body that makes skin, hair, and eyes darker. Isn’t that cool?”
If the person they referred to is open to it, you can introduce yourself and your child, and ask them your name. You can take a seemingly awkward situation and make it an opportunity for learning. Depending on where you live, you may have to put an effort into having these opportunities. If you do not live in a diverse area, make an effort to visit businesses and festivals operated by people of color.
Reading books and watching videos is not enough — you have to talk about them
I have included many resources at the end of this blog. Reading and watching these resources is not enough — you have to have conversations around them. I personally enjoyed starting with some of the historic biographies because they are stories of bravery, and I felt it would help instill an understanding of systemic racism and the long history that lead to it. If you want this to be in a conversation I would suggest pausing between pages or in the video to allow for questions to arise. I would also suggest some open-ended questions such as the following:
- What do you think about this?
- Are you having any feelings right now?
- Have you ever experienced anything like this?
- Let’s imagine for a moment we were treated like this.
- Do you see events happening today like this?
- Who were the helpers in this situation?
- How do you think our family could be helpers?
- How can we help today?
Have many conversations, often
Have many conversations, at all the developmental stages. There is not one big talk about racism, just like there is not one big talk about sex and drugs. These conversations need to be continual. Please make it clear how your family feels about race, racism, and being antiracist. Children’s perspectives change with each developmental stage. Your child may have a different perspective at 8 years old than they do at 12 or 15.
Ask open-ended questions that are engaging to your children. You may have a child who would like to make signs and be involved in a peaceful protest. Another child may not want to protest but they do want to raise money for an antiracist organization they feel inspired by. Another child may want more education. Another kid might want to talk to their friends about this, or just listen and process. All of these are appropriate, and all parts of the process, but these responses start with that initial conversation.
All of this can happen with education, leaning into discomfort, and communicating, but you have to take that first step. You are ready. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m here if you’d like some additional guidance. And please do check out the resources I’ve listed below and use them as a talking point. Thank you for reading and for talking to your kids.
A note: If you are going to purchase books, please use a local bookstore. They need you right now (and always). If you are inspired by these books, please encourage your local library to carry them. There are SO many more resources than what I have listed but this is a wonderful start.
Books for yourself (or your teen):
Books for Children:
Ordinary People Change the World — specifically Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robbinson, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Videos for children, older children, and teens (in order)
Rachel Maietta is a mom, certified parent coach, preschool teacher, and founder of Wholehearted Parent Coaching. She has worked with children of all ages, and loves to support parents. If you are interested in coaching and would like to start a 10-week parenting journey, you can receive a free consultation. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram for blogs, ideas, and parenting information, or use the form below to contact her directly.